“The Willoughbys,” Netflix’s whimsical animated feature about four unloved siblings breaking free from their toxic home (based on the children’s book by Lois Lowry), couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time during the global pandemic. And the irony isn’t lost on director Kris Pearn (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”), who infused his aesthetic with a hand-made, retro quality filled with tactile textures and bright colors.
“The world we’re living in is really hard to imagine,” said Pearn, who made his movie at Vancouver-based Bron Animation while partnering with Netflix, which provided crucial financing and creative support as part of its new auteur-based culture for indie animation. “But the theme of Lois’ book — you can’t build a wall to keep ideas out — is timely for wanting to bust out right now.”
The filmmaker always knew that “the bulk of our audience was going to be watching the film at home on Netflix, he said: “That was always part of the storytelling, to ground it in that space. For me, the original pitch was ‘Grey Gardens’ meets ‘Arrested Development’ for kids.”
The movie follows four neglected kids who send their self-absorbed parents (Martin Short and Alessia Cara) on a dangerous world tour and become orphans on a journey of togetherness. They encounter the warmhearted Nanny (Maya Rudolph) and an eccentric candy maker, Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews). But, given that the quirky premise is narrated by a cat (voiced by Ricky Gervais), Pearn and production designer Kyle McQueen (“The Addams Family”) proceeded as though the camera were inside the blue tabby’s head.
“Walking around that world, what would the textures feel like?,” added Pearn. “What if everything in the world was hand-made? That quality made everything funny and allowed us to travel, so we had a number of collisions in the story.”
They began with the metaphor of their Victorian mansion as an entombed box, representing the family legacy and all of its material objects of wealth and accomplishment. “There was a feeling of richness in the house but none of it was alive,” Pearn said. “Everything feels like it’s from the past. Everybody’s space represents both their problems and potential. And the camera is locked down like a sitcom, and the colors are autumnal to telegraph that they’ve reached the end of an era.
“And there are many different metaphors for the box and each box has its own design language,” he continued. “But we wanted to harmonize it. Even if you’re on the Swiss Alps at the end of the movie, that snow feels like its handmade. There’s a texture to it, like it was bought at Michael’s. And the water in the ocean has the feeling of streamers.”
As the outside world gets more colorful, it tracks with the kids’ imaginations, which have been informed by illustrated books. And character designer Craig Kellman (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”) provided a strong shape language as well. The Willoughby kids look like Q-tips with hair made of yarn, Nanny resembles a heart-shaped hug, and Commander Melanoff appears as a large mattress with arms. Oddly, the exterior of his imposing-looking factory looks like his body in reverse (a nod to “Citizen Kane’s” Xanadu), while the Willy Wonka-inspired, candy-colored interior symbolizes more of his joyous nature.
For Pearn, it all comes back to the cat playing with the story like a piece of yarn. “The idea of yarn connecting the family became the most tactile metaphor,” he said. “It binds them together because of the past but it doesn’t define them.”
The quarantine, meanwhile, has compelled Pearn to think more about his own family connection. “The silver lining for me is having human conversations during the day on Zoom or Skype,” he said. “They’re meaningful in a way that they weren’t when I was in the throes of production and wasn’t always present. The second this is over, I can’t wait to get on an airplane and hug the people I love.”